It’s been several months since last I posted on our blog site. To those who follow our blog, I apologize. This spring, we chose to undertake a large project – to clear land and plant a permaculture food forest. We were probably more than a little overly optimistic about what we would be able to accomplish. As a result, I had to make some choices about what things would get done and what things would have to go on the back burner. Unfortunately, our blog ended up on the low priority list. We are finally slowing down, and here is an abbreviated summary of our spring spent clearing and planting trees …
Panorama of our homestead site taken from the highest point. Much of the recently cleared land is now planted in a variety of nut-producing trees (walnuts, hickories, hazelnuts, stone pines, oaks, honey locust, and yellowhorn), although the trees are difficult to spot from a distance.
Way back in December of 2021, I developed a design for our permaculture food forest (more like a food orchard than a forest). This was the culmination of many years of study and discussion. We needed to address several issues that we were facing on our homestead:
- We wanted to achieve a higher level of self-sustainability. Given the worldwide events of the past couple years, this drive towards sustainability had only been given greater impetus. Our annual garden, although useful, was limited. Lack of water during the summer and lack of fertilizer year-round prevented us from having a highly productive garden, and reduced the number of plant species we could grow successfully. Furthermore, the annual garden competed poorly with the native vegetation, required constant weeding, and was very labor intensive. This level of maintenance cut severely into our foraging opportunities. One possible solution to this was to grow perennial shrubs and trees that yielded a variety of food resources. Drought tolerant trees would require much less maintenance and water than an annual garden with the same level of productivity.
- The old homestead site was completely overgrown with 15′ tall compacted, mostly-dead salmonberry intertwined with English ivy, creating a wall of dense vegetation that was nearly impenetrable to everything except bears, who were drawn by the presence of the salmonberries. This caused two concerns. Firstly, the amount of dead salmonberry created a fire hazard, and we really needed to clear a fire break zone between our cabin and the forest. Secondly, the presence of bears roaming largely unseen, but definitely heard, through this dense thicket was a serious wildlife problem, and increased the likelihood of chance bear encounters as soon as we left the region enclosed by our electric fence.
- In the regions that we had already cleared, soil erosion was a problem. Heavy rains in the winter washed the soil from our gardens, and in the summer, the northerly williwaws dried the soil out and blasted it away in dust devils. Planting cover crops helped, but the best protection was provided by the trees that we had left in place or had planted since we’d arrived. Planting more trees as we cleared away the salmonberry was clearly a necessity. Moreover, from the perspective of creating a fire break, these trees would have to be chosen to be somewhat fire resistant and maintained without building up a flammable layer of duff.
- The effects of climate change on our site were becoming evident, and one of these impacts was that our south-facing clearing was becoming too hot during periods of intensely sunny summer weather. We needed shade trees badly, and ultimately much of the annual garden may have to be grown in the partial shade between trees.
Thus, the decision to design a “forest” of trees and shrubs in the cabin clearing that would bear edible produce was made. Based on this plan, we ordered bare root plants from Denman Island Heritage Apples and TreeEater Farm and Nursery, both on Denman Island, in January of this year, with an expectation of having them arrive in late February or early March. The concept was that we would fell trees and clear salmonberry during January and February, and start planting our trees in February and March.
Well, as Robby Burns said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men …”.
January 2022 was the coldest we’d seen in the past 8 years, down to -12°C. However, we felt pretty lucky, as that was balmy compared with Campbell River, which got down to -17°C. Then we got heavy snow, again more than we’d seen fall in one day in the years we’d been here. We had roughly 18” one night, followed by rain the next day, which made for something approximating white concrete. So much for dropping alders … we were busy trying to unload our roofs, although everything stood up to the load pretty well with just a little sag in the metal roof of the woodshed. We ended up with almost 3′ of snow, with icy layers in between the snow falls. It was the first time we’d been totally cabin-bound. Even Brennan couldn’t get through the snow.
Then on January 19th, my mother passed away. That pretty much stalled any plans we had, as suddenly I had to deal with paperwork and my Mom’s belongings, as well as cope with my own emotional response to grieving.
In the first week of February, the snow had finally melted away enough that we could get out and start clearing. On the 24th of February, our batch of little apple trees from Denman Island Heritage Apples arrived. By then, we’d had a few days of sunny weather, but the night time lows were still around -5°C. The ground was frozen, which was a bit of a hassle, as the bare root trees were supposed to be planted promptly (with an ice axe??). As it turned out, once we’d chipped through the surface layer, the deeper soil was unfrozen and we were able to get the trees planted. I was pretty skeptical about their survival – we were still getting some cold weather, and I was hoping they wouldn’t break dormancy until later in the season.
In the meanwhile, our tree order from TreeEater Farm and Nursery was delayed due to some unfortunate issues at their end. This turned out to be a boon in disguise. Instead of shipping the trees bare root, I requested that they be kept in pots. Ken and I picked them up at the nursery on Denman Island on May 17th, coinciding with my biannual trip to the ophthalmologist in Comox. By now, we were months behind on our schedule of land clearing, and the little trees ended up living in their pots for quite some time before finally getting planted.
I’ve heard it said that hard work is a good way to get past bad times, and certainly we had lots of that this year! Three weeks after summer solstice and we were still getting heavy rains and cool days. I think this will go down in the books as the summer that wasn’t. However, in between wet days, we managed to get all the trees planted by the middle of July. At the end of July, we had as much of the clearing finished as we were going to get done this summer, and the most of the felled alders chopped up and drying in the woodshed for the winter. Ken thinks that maybe we went a wee bit overboard with the planning this year, ha ha!
So, what did we accomplish this year?
- We expanded our fenced area from 0.79 acres to 1.16 acres.
- We cleared 0.46 acres using only two chainsaws, a hedge trimmer, a brush cutter/string trimmer, and some good ol’ hand tools like shovels, mattocks, and clippers. It doesn’t sound like much, but without a tractor, it’s more than enough!
- We planted 58 trees and shrubs this year, with approximately 31 more to plant next year.
The codes for the specific types of trees that we planted are given here.
Here are some pictures of the homestead after the all the work has been done.
A couple of the new trees were already of bearing age, and I allowed a limited amount of fruit on them, largely to see what the quality was like. All the others will have wait until they’re a little older. Most of the plants have settled in and are starting to grow new leaves and branches, although I have a half dozen or so that have been persistently slow, and I’m not sure if they’ll take or not. We’ll see how they winter.
So where are we going from here?
Well, already on order is another 1000 gallon water tank to be installed in the upper corner of the newly cleared area. It’s clear that we will need more water for the garden for the next couple of years until the young trees have established their roots. An additional supply of water near the house is also good for fire prevention and fighting.
Our next phase will be to order seeds for stratification this winter. These will be varieties that I haven’t been able to obtain locally. We had really good success with our garry oak germination last year (21 plants out of 24 seeded pots), so I’m hopeful that if I can get good quality seed, I’ll be able to start the remaining plants that I want to add to the orchard from seed.
We also need to clear a small remaining section of brush within our fenced enclosure. That will probably happen late this fall or early next spring.
From there … well, we’ll just have to see …